Guns can carry a kind of historical value that’s almost unrivaled in terms of memorabilia. To many people, a present-day gun is an ugly thing, but one from the past can be utterly romantic – after all, what’s history without romance? Tragedy, death and violence — all these almost cinematic characteristics of bygone days — are fulfilled by gunfire. War and conflict underscores epochs, but single shots punctuate the end of eras, and when they do their deliverers become relics that, coupled with their titillating aura of violence, make collectors swoon.
But only certain types of guns tend to attain that kind of significance. An assault rifle, for example, though far deadlier than any handgun, will forever symbolize widespread violence and endemic warfare. Its barrage of bullets is more likely to kill hundreds than an individual (which, as Stalin infamously quipped, is a statistic – not a tragedy). A Colt .45 revolving pistol on the other hand, with its concealed carry and single-shot firing mechanism, can express a singular purpose in a single death, concentrating that ugly spirit of the times into one flash and bang that bonds history to a single gun forever.
But whether they killed the immortal or simply sat in their holsters, a gun’s historical significance is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Even without seeing any action, some guns represent something significant through their adoption by important historical figures for security, status or image. In some cases, those significant people stared down the barrel. When a gun is ascertained to be incredibly historically valuable, it can sell for hundreds of thousands – and even millions – of dollars. The following 7 guns have commanded record auction prices for their collectible value.
7. The Fuhrer’s Golden Gun: $114,000
This golden 7.65mm Walther PP was likely never holstered, never mind fired, by history’s most loathsome leader. But undeniably belonging to “A.H.”, it sold for $114,000 at a 1987 auction to an anonymous bidder. It has since quietly changed hands several times, and would likely fetch millions today.
Supposedly gifted to Hitler on his 50th birthday in 1939 by the Walther family, the gun probably remained more of a prized showpiece than a protective accessory. Many historians once believed though — and some still argue — that Hitler used it to commit suicide in his bunker as World War II waned.
The more accepted story says an American soldier looted this treasure during a small splinter mission to capture the Fuhrer just months before his death. Upon infiltrating Hitler’s apartment in April of 1945, the ivory-gripped gun became one of many things the mercenaries secured from his desk drawers. As for the dictator himself, he was miles away in a Berlin bunker, preparing for his suicide.
6. Wyatt Earp’s Colt .45-caliber Revolver: $225,000
This revolver belonged to Wyatt Earp, icon of the American Old West, and candidate for most inglorious law enforcer to ever sport a badge. Besides “keeping the peace” as a Town Marshal of Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, Earp frequently gambled himself broke, hunted buffalo, refereed boxing, mined for gold and ran a brothel, saloon and barber shop; a curriculum vitae only rivaled by the size of his moustache.
But simply being Earp’s revolver alone doesn’t explain its staggering $225,000 sale at an Arizona auction this past April: This particular firearm, passed down by the Earp family, is also most likely the one Wyatt used in the most legendary gunfight in Wild West history, the O.K. Corral shootout — an event which became legend, the exact details forever lost in time.
All we know is outlaws Tom and Frank McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne met lawmen Wyatt, brothers Virgil and Morgan Earp, and assistant deputy Doc Holliday in the streets of Tombstone, Arizona one Wednesday afternoon in 1881. Wyatt and Doc Holliday were the only ones who left the gunfight without a scratch, quite possibly thanks to this gun.
5. The .44-caliber Smith & Wesson that Killed Jesse James: $350,000
Meanwhile, in Missouri on the other side of the law, the most infamous bandit in American history led his merry thieves on a bank, train, stagecoach and store-pillaging extravaganza. The James Gang terrorized Kansas and Missouri for nearly two decades after their formative guerrilla years in the Civil War, but at the turn of the 1880s the gang found itself crumbling under a series of botched thefts and captures. The nail in their coffin would be the bullet in Jesse James’ head, fired from this iconic and extraordinarily valuable gun.
The shot was delivered by double-crossing gang member Bob Ford, who secretly negotiated James’ murder for reward to the Missouri governor. After breakfast on the morning of April 3, 1882, as James paused to straighten a picture on his wall, Ford shot him in the back of the head. The murder weapon — a heavily used and weathered version of the model above — brought in $350,000 at a low-key Anaheim auction in 2003.
4. Teddy Roosevelt’s Double-Barreled Shotgun: $862,500
One common misconception about Theodore Roosevelt is that he was fond of hunting. In fact he was totally fanatical, to the point that he said hunting would be the first thing he’d do upon relinquishing his presidency. He wasn’t joking: Roosevelt embarked on a year-long Smithsonian African expedition in March 1909 — the very same month he left the White House. In about thirteen months, Teddy’s party killed and trapped an estimated 11,400 animals ranging from insects to elephants, including six rare white rhinos, for preservation in American Museums.
Roosevelt’s epic excursion was all about killing rare species in the name of science and history – deplorable as that may be – and the shotgun pictured above was part of this mission. The Fox Gun Company made the gun especially for Roosevelt’s safari as he ended his presidential term. That one of America’s most loved presidents remarked “it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen” (and then got downright trigger-happy with it) certainly fuelled its $862,500 selling price at a 2010 Julia Inc. gun auction. Those cleaning cloths — torn slivers of Roosevelt’s pajamas — also certainly added some value.
3. Simon Bolivar’s Flintlock Pistols: $1,687,500
While few of us recall the name Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, historians will call him one of the most important figures in world history. As a military leader and politician who shepherded Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia’s independence from the Spanish Empire, he’s — in a sense — a founding father of Hispanic America. He also served as president of all those modern day countries, including parts of Peru, Guyana and Brazil, in the early-1800s megastate of Gran Colombia.
While Bolivar ultimately died rather unbrazenly of tuberculosis, he was a revolutionary on the frontlines of civil war and political restructuring, under perpetual risk of assassination, and strapped at all times. This pair of flintlock pistols no doubt has the blood of Spanish viceroys on it; in 2004 the pair fetched $1,687,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York.
2. George Washington’s Saddle Pistols: $1,986,000
Not to be outdone by South American revolutionary war pistols, these U. S. of A. revolutionary war pistols went to the Richard King Mellon Foundation in 2002 for just shy of $2 million at Christie’s. Since most people agree they’re the most important firearms in American history and not some show-off piece for a Silicon Valley mogul, they’re currently on display at Fort Ligonier in Pennsylvania.
After arming George Washington throughout America’s war for independence, these twin firearms eventually landed in the hands of seventh US president Andrew Jackson. From there they travelled a long inheritance to arrive back in public view just last decade, and rightfully so — could there be a more powerful homage to the birth of America?
1. Lincoln’s Killer: Priceless
Of all the money and intrigue surrounding the guns on this list, perhaps none rival this tiny 6-inch derringer sitting in a display case at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Yet the only price ever paid for this item was around $25 in the mid-1800s, by John Wilkes Booth.
One shot was all Booth had to end Abraham Lincoln’s life when he snuck into the President’s theater box on April 14, 1865. Upon firing into the President’s head, he dropped the weapon and leapt onto the stage for his escape. Kept for generations as evidence by the War Department, the miniature relic eventually returned to its fateful origins at the Ford Theatre where it had changed the course of history, and where likely no price will ever remove it. Though once allegedly stolen and replaced with a fake, the FBI re-authenticated it in 1997.